Should You Work For Free?
Free work is a highly debated topic within the world of audio engineering (and other freelance-heavy professions). Some people will say “never do it.” Others will advise to take every gig paid or unpaid early on. Who’s right?
Like most things, everyone’s experience will be different. Free work is inherently tangled up in ideas such as personal value, opportunity, and making a living — so in order to understand if and when we should work for free we need to evaluate each situation accordingly.
In my youngin’ years it was readily assumed the best education in the field was through an internship at a professional studio. It was also accepted that this was the first step toward building a career. Now, the lines are not so hard and fast. An internship certainly doesn’t guarantee anything (although it never did), and you effectively can start up without one.
My feeling is that we are still in the day of apprenticeship, and probably always will be. While interning is not the only path to a career in engineering, I believe it to be the fastest and most effective. Yes, you are volunteering your work without pay, but the rewards vastly outweigh the sacrifice. Even a not-so-great internship can lead to great one.
If you are at this stage of the game and you’re able to pursue an internship — do it.
Let’s look at the benefits: you increase your personal value by gaining tacit experience. You expose yourself to opportunity. The con is that it won’t help you pay your bills directly. It’s a dedication that sets you up to make a living later on, but if you are already making your living as an engineer you may be passed the point of interning.
Unpaid work is a tricky spot. Ultimately — you have to start out recording or mixing something. When you are just getting your feet wet, the best course is to take anything that comes your way. You have to build a reputation and gain experience somehow before you can step into the big leagues. But that’s fairly easy.
The trickier spot is when you are beginning to charge people and you are in that transitional phase.
On one hand, you’re distancing yourself from the days of unpaid work. On the other hand you’re still building that reputation and gaining experience. My advice is 9/10 times you should be saying no to unpaid work.
First, people who take their music seriously expect to invest into it. You won’t gain anything outside of money by working with people who don’t invest in themselves.
Second, these clients tend to be very difficult to work with. Lack of commitment tends to extend outside of just the money aspect — you’ll be getting a poorly recorded, unedited, badly constructed song and a client that wants it to come off as a big production. This kind of work is important to do, but it’s going to be a time commitment and should be compensated.
Third, your commitment is almost never reciprocated.
However, that’s not to say all free work at this point is a bad idea. Certain projects come along where either the exposure is genuinely worthwhile, or the people involved are truly good people with a strong commitment to their music. It’s rare but it happens. When these situations come up it’s worth pursuing. You just have to be highly discerning between what has the potential for opportunity and what is a waste of time.
Let’s look at our options. Is working with this client for free going to increase your personal value? Will it expose you to more opportunities? Is it going to interfere with your ability to make a living?
Eventually you’ll get to a point where free work is out of the question. Until then, pick and choose.
At this point in my career I don’t really work unpaid. I do however have an “any budget is fine” policy with a few special folks. Those people were there from the start and helped me get to where I am. They’ve paid me in many ways indirectly.
Outside of that, free work is very unappealing. But if it weren’t for the work I did for free when I was younger I wouldn’t be getting paid to work now. I can’t stress enough how important having a strong team around me has been. It’s the foundation that every success has been built on.
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